A chartered plane carrying American consulate personnel and citizens from an area of China at the center of a coronavirus outbreak has been cleared to proceed to California after making a refueling stop at an airport in Anchorage, Alaska, Tuesday night.
Health officials in Alaska said all 201 passengers on board continued on to the plane’s final destination in California after undergoing health screening in Anchorage.
“All passengers had already been through two screenings in China and were monitored during the flight,” the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said in a statement. “In Anchorage, all passengers were screened twice more and approved to continue on to California by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”
Passengers will be re-screened and “temporarily housed for a period of time” upon their arrival in California, officials added.
Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said during a press conference early Wednesday morning that they were prepared to handle 240 passengers — the maximum number that the plane could hold, but only 201 passengers boarded the plane in China.
The plane’s crew had no interactions and was completely isolated from the passengers during the flight. They also never got off in China, and “the CDC felt they were at zero risk,” Zink said.
Staff who handled the passengers in Anchorage also took maximum precaution, wearing face masks, gloves and had minimal interaction with the passengers.
Asked about the risk of bringing in people who could potentially harbor the virus, Zink said the plane would not land in Alaska if they felt that it would jeopardize public safety in any way.
Airport manager, Jim Szczesniak, said there was no concern for regular domestic passengers arriving today.
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“We want to make sure that the public knows this was successfully done in our north terminal – in a segregated area, not anywhere near our domestic terminal.”
Szczesniak said he was not aware of any more planes scheduled to fly through Alaska from Wuhan.
The plane was seen landing at Ted Stevens International Airport at around 9:30 p.m. Anchorage time. It appeared from video that some of those on the ground were wearing protective suits, gloves and masks.
The State Department said on Tuesday that the charter plane from Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, left with staff from the U.S. consulate as well as private American citizens.
The plane had been scheduled to arrive at the airport in the city of Ontario, California, which was designated by the federal government as the official repatriation center for California about a decade ago, San Bernardino County has said.
But Tuesday night officials in Ontario, which is east of Los Angeles, said in a statement that the CDC informed it that the plane would instead be diverted to March Air Reserve Base, which is to the southeast in Riverside County.
The news comes as British Airways said it was stopping all flights to China. “We have suspended all flights to and from mainland China with immediate effect following advice from the Foreign Office against all but essential travel,” it said in an emailed statement.
“We apologise to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.”
The deadly coronavirus is known as 2019-nCoV, or novel coronavirus.
Chinese health authorities said that as of late Tuesday local time there have been 5,974 confirmed cases in that country, and 132 people have died. There were 9,239 suspected cases in the country.
So far 56 cases have been confirmed in 14 other countries, according to a World Health Organization status report earlier Tuesday.
Five people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus, according to the CDC. All of those were people who traveled from Wuhan and they are in isolation. The CDC says that the immediate risk in the U.S. is low.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a news conference Tuesday that it is a fast-moving and constantly changing situation and potentially a serious public health threat.
“But at this point, Americans should not worry for their own safety,” Azar said.
China has cut off access to Wuhan and 16 other cities in Hubei province to prevent people from leaving and spreading the virus further, The Associated Press reported.